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The Advocate Online
Published on 1/21/99    

State’s king cake tradition evolved from ties to Spain, Italy, France

By TOMMY SIMMONS AND CHERAMIE SONNIER

King cakes weren’t always as popular in Louisiana as they are today. In the 1960s, Baton Rougeans might occasionally be served king cake at a Mardi Gras party, but having king cake throughout Mardi Gras season didn’t take off until about 15 or 20 years ago.

It’s generally conceded that Louisiana’s king cake traditions started in New Orleans where king cake was eaten at the Twelfth Night balls and parties that launched the Mardi Gras season. However, New Orleans natives and former residents recall that king cakes were always associated with party-giving and never served as a casual, office treat as they are now.

Lafayette resident Rose Jordan, who grew up in a modest New Orleans neighborhood, said she doesn’t remember even seeing a king cake until the 1950s. Jordan, who lived next door to a bakery for several years, called the cakes "a long tradition in the upper crust," but she noted that "regular people didn’t have them."

In a 1993 Times-Picayune story, Donald Entringer, who started McKenzie’s bakeries 59 years ago, said that before World War II his bakery only made a few king cakes for one krewe. He said it was after the war that a McKenzie spokesman began eating king cake on television and popularized it.

The original Picayune cookbook published by the New Orleans newspaper in 1901 says that New Orleanians started serving king cake as part of the Spanish celebration of Kings’ Day, the twelfth day after Christmas, which commemorates the visit of the Three Wise Men of the East to the Bethlehem manger. In Spain and in New Orleans during Spanish domination, the exchanging of gifts was part of the celebration on Kings’ Day.

Kings’ Day also marked the beginning of carnival season. During the Kings’ Day festivities, a king and queen were chosen to reign over a grand ball. In succeeding weeks of carnival season up to Ash Wednesday, a new king and queen were selected each week to rule over that week’s activities.

The cookbook didn’t make it clear if the king cake was used to determine who would be tapped for the royal roles. In fact, the Picayune recipe doesn’t mention the hidden bean or baby that is present in a modern king cake. However, most other accounts of the history of the cake suggest that the carnival king was the one who found the baby or bean in his slice of cake. Therefore, the cake was most likely part of the court selection.

While "The Picayune Creole Cook Book" traces the origin of its king cake to the Spanish, other food historians believe that the New Orleans king cake was really an Italian or a French tradition.

The Italian connection is traced to the ancient Epiphany festivals in Italy. Earliest records of the Italian king cake date from Roman times, when the cake was served at the Saturnalia revels. A good luck bean was placed inside the cake, and whoever got it was made master of the Saturnalia events.

By the 14th century, beans were still baked into the cakes, but the festival was now Christian, and the name was changed to the Festival of the King or Festa del Re.

At this event, three white fava beans and one black fava bean were baked into the cake. The three white beans were to honor the three kings, the black bean was for choosing the king. Whoever got the black bean was named king and could choose his queen and rule over the banquet.

In Italy’s Piedmont region, only one bean was used. Bakers in this region were the first to replace the bean with the baby to symbolize the Christ child. The bakers presented king cakes to their best customers as a thank-you for their patronage. Those king cakes were never associated with grand balls or used for choosing a king or court.

In other areas of Italy, the Epiphany was preceded by the lighting of bonfires to light the way for the kings. King cakes were sometimes nothing more than rustic sweet breads called pinza, which were filled with raisins, nuts, figs and spiced with fennel. Sometimes these were made in the shape of the Greek letter Epsilon with the three equal arms representing the Magi.

France had two king cake variations. The northern French king cake, Galette des Rois, was round and made of layers of flaky pastry filled with almond paste. The prize inside symbolized the Christ child and enabled the person who found it to be king or queen of the Twelfth Night Feast of Epiphany.

In southern France, the king cake was similar to the king cake served today across south Louisiana. The cake was called a Bordeaux Twelfth Night Cake. It was made from sweet brioche dough and braided to look like a crown.

It’s most probable that the New Orleans king cake evolved from the customs of all of south Louisiana’s immigrants.

Today’s typical king cake served throughout south Louisiana is a round, braided, donut-shaped cake made from a sweet yeast dough. It is usually filled with fruit, a cinnamon swirl, custard, jelly or pecans and iced with a sugar frosting and colored sugars in the official Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold and green.

The colors represent the official colors of Mardi Gras that were selected by the Krewe of Rex in 1871 or 1872. But, ask what the colors signify, if anything, and you will get varying answers.

Some say the green stands for loyalty or everlasting, purple for wisdom, and gold, one of the gifts from the Wise Men, is for faith.

Others say green signifies faith; purple, royalty or justice; and gold, power. There’s even a story that they were chosen after a member of the Russian royal Romanov family visited New Orleans during Mardi Gras season. Purple, green and gold supposedly were the family’s colors.

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